White House

Trump Is Wasting the State of the Union

He's struggling to lead his administration and Congress. His silence speaks volumes.

Reboot.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Trump's first State of the Union speech is only five days away, and what's that I hear? The unmistakable sound of nothing. As far as I can tell, President Donald Trump's team has dedicated zero effort to systematically rolling out his major new proposals. 1 If, that is, he plans to unveil any of those. 

Trump to Focus on Trade, Immigration in State of the Union

If it's really going to be an empty speech, it will be a huge missed opportunity for a president who has struggled to lead the executive branch and Congress in accomplishing his major campaign promises, from trade to a border wall.

The only "new" administration "initiative" that seems to have at least some internal momentum -- judging by the buzz generated by various allies -- is the infrastructure plan. According to Politico, its formal unveiling will occur "within two weeks," a time-sensitive promise this White House rarely keeps. (This time, of course, it might.) It seems more likely that we're headed for a State of the Union long on braggadocio and short on concrete proposals. 2  

State of the Union speeches matter -- at least in normal administrations -- because of the crucial role they've come to play in the policy-making process. 3 The speech forces decisions across the administration, from agency to agency: What will the president say about pressing issues he can't duck? Which of the countless policy promises the president has made is he really going to fight for this year? 

Everyone gets a chance to lobby for their pet issue as the speech is written: Agencies weigh in, as do interest groups, members of Congress and governors, the president's party, and various others who have a stake in what happens. There's room for a only a handful of new ideas, and so that's one set of conflicts; there's also pressure from all of those people to at least get a mention, and preferably a whole paragraph, about their priorities.

The State of the Union is considered by everyone to be a powerful statement of the White House's priorities -- in Congress, within the executive branch, and abroad. If something isn't mentioned, they usually can assume the president doesn't care much about it; the more emphasis a policy gets, the more everyone believes the White House will push strongly to get what it wants. 

At least, that's how things are with a normal president.

Trump's professional reputation in Washington is so awful that no one really expects him to take a position, stick to it, and fight for it. Whether it was health care, taxes or immigration, he's convinced everyone who works with him that he's easily manipulated and his word can't be trusted. That's not just the rhetoric Democrats use for public consumption; his own staff members are reportedly working to prevent another meeting between him and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to avoid any surprises as Congress works out an immigration deal.

Trump supporters should see the State of the Union speech as an opportunity to start rebuilding his reputation. If the administration treated it like a normal State of the Union and then followed up appropriately by sticking to the positions and priorities outlined by the president, it would help. 

Instead, what we're likely to see is a whole lot of self-congratulation, along with some vague nods toward priorities that won't convince anyone that Trump is serious about them, and don't provide much guidance anyway. It's one thing, for example, to say that the U.S. has to get tough on trade and to complain that old trade deals were allegedly poorly negotiated; it's another to talk about specific proposals and set clear positions, something that Trump has never bothered to do. It's one thing to talk about the need for infrastructure, but it's another to actually make the policy choices required to write legislation and secure funding.

In 2017, Trump simply didn't do any of that. The result was that Republicans in Congress moved the bills they cared about (health care and taxes) and ignored the areas they didn't care about, such as infrastructure, even if Trump campaigned hard on them. The State of the Union speech is one of the biggest opportunities for any president. It's one of the few moments that commands the attention of the entire political world. 4 Odds are that for Trump, it's just going to be another wasted opportunity. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. It's already too late for the usual trial balloons, as the White House tests potential initiatives against the possibility of organized opposition. It still is possible that we'll still see some aggressive public preparation for the speech, but that might be hard with the president off at Davos.

  2. It's also hard to imagine new administration initiatives emerging in the weeks after the State of the Union -- that is, ones that missed the deadline for the speech.

  3. To the extent they have a public opinion function, it's mainly about supplying supporters of the president with an up-to-date list of reasons why they support him. Critics of the president generally don't watch, and are unlikely to change their minds if they do even when the president is talented at using the form. 

  4. Yes, Trump does a great job of grabbing the attention of the media with his Twitter account and his frequent intemperate statements. But while those comments can matter to some extent, they're not the platform that the State of the Union can provide, and many have learned to ignore the policy components of Trump's running commentary. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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